Carlos Hope has made a connection at South Aiken.
His Thoroughbreds were the best South Carolina team in the area this season, finishing 20-7 and winning the program's first region title since 1986.
"The key thing I did this year was giving up being an assistant coach in football," Hope said. "I had mixed feelings about that. Football was my first love. Playing football put me through college. But it allowed me to focus on this team and basketball program."
It proved to be the right call.
The Thoroughbreds even won their first game in the state tournament since winning a title in 1998. The cupboard is stocked with enough returning talent that they should sustain the success next year.
But Hope's connection runs deeper than his team. One of the most vivid images of the season was watching Hope walk up to the student section at The Stable before a playoff game.
It's reminiscent of The Arsenio Hall Show, when the host would become the maestro as he worked up the crowd.
"I would just tell our students that we needed the place to be rocking," Hope said. "I want to be sure we have a team that does their part and a crowd that does their part, too. That's building a program. I wanted them to tear the place down every night."
Hope wouldn't meet those fans empty-handed either. His playoff custom was to toss a few team T-shirts out to the rowdiest fans.
"I probably gave out around 15 or so T-shirts," Hope said. "Some people came up to me during school asking for one. It was just a black South Aiken T-shirt. Not much. But it's a way of rewarding those students for coming out and supporting our basketball team."
Support is an understatement. South Aiken's energetic fans were the envy of every road team.
"I've never played in an atmosphere like it," Rock Hill senior standout Tori Childers said after the third round of the playoffs. "I couldn't think. It was hard to focus at the free throw line. That's a crowd every team would love to have. They ring in your ears."
Rock Hill left Aiken that night impressed with every aspect of Hope's program. Coach Bobby Stephens said South Aiken's simple high school crowd was as loud as the 10,000-seat arena he played in at Virginia Tech.
"Coach Hope needs to be commended for every thing about his program," Stephens said. "The passion his team plays with and the environment he's been a part of creating for high school basketball. This is a great place for high school basketball. You can see the support in the eyes of every one of those students."
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